Saturday, October 27, 2012

Letters and Longhand

The mail carrier brings a daily deposit of disappointment: amid the bills and ads and other junk mail, rarely is there a hand-written letter or card.  Except for birthdays and holidays, there is seldom a touch of the personal. Letter-size envelopes sometimes look promising until I see they are marked "Occupant" or something equally disspiriting.

All this came to mind as I read the book Script & Scribble by Kitty Burns Florey, who is literate, witty and informative as she makes a plea for the hand-written word, which seems about to go the way of the dodo.

It shouldn't be: as she notes, TV didn't kill off radio, cars did not displace bicycles, yet the prevalence of email, along with cheaper long distance calling, has made the art of letter writing extinct.

Of course, as etiquette experts Amy Vanderbilt and others remind us, thank-you and sympathy cards have to be in longhand; even Etiquette for Dummies insists on hand-written notes on quality stationery for such occasions.

But many people I know use the informal email to thank us for cards and gifts: it's cheap and fast. Who, Florey asks, needs elegant handwriting today, the kind the nuns taught her (and me)--except cake decorators?

The underlying educational implications of students who never learn to write but only print, the subject of a previous post, is a more serious and bothersome issue. The day may already be here when youngsters cannot even read longhand, much less write it.  Instead, they must always be dependent on an external power source.  Even in classes or at meetings where jotting down notes rapidly requires the speed of longhand.

As Florey and others remind us of the many authors who, even in today's world, write by hand, we realize how much is lost by the refusal of teachers to teach penmanship or cursive writing.  Even a mixture of the two, as I sometimes find myself doing for the sake of legibility--half-printing, half-writing--is better than no cursive writing at all.

Having puzzled over far too many illegible student essay exams over the years, I know how difficult some handwriting can be to read; but that is no reason to abandon it. 

Florey's solution to the classrooom problem is to teach kids "one good, plain, solid, simple, easy, basic, legible, attractive--and fast--method" from the beginning, rather than teaching printing, then (in many cases) moving on to cursive.

Like me, she is concerned not only with efficiency but with aesthetics. Her elegant book is filled with examples of beautiful handwriting, with information on italic writing, pens, calligraphy and a fine discussion of those many authors, including J. K. Rowling, William Boyd, Martin Amis and John Updike, who have insisted on longhand in the digital age.

For years, I have begun most of my essays and other works on a legal pad, with a ball-point pen (the kind frowned on by our teachers in the 1950s: too messy). Revising, of course, is made pleasant and even enjoyable on the word processor, but nothing can replace the look and feel of my own handwriting: I am inscribing on paper a part of myself. It is a physical act and it focuses my attention on the words as they tumble out of my mind in a personal, intimate way that machines (whether typewriters or computers) cannot match.

So I am glad to read in this book about studies--and teachers who agree with these studies--that good handwriting can influence academic performance for the better; they insist that our advances in technology do not eliminate the need for the teaching of handwriting. We remember what we commit to paper, by hand.

Since writing this (10-27-12), I have discovered news about Philip Hensher's recent book, The Missing Ink, which poses the question: As handwriting disappears, will "some part of our humanity disappear as well?"  According to the reviews, his book is a personal response to this question.

I am glad to see him making his point that handwriting reveals individuality in an age of text messaging and other electronic forms of typing.  (update 1-23-13).

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